While school shootings have received widespread media attention, their impact on enrollment and student performance is not well-known. High school shootings can leave potentially damaging effects on both students and schools.
Could extreme violence in high schools hinder the ability of students to learn? Could it also influence their decision about whether to stay or change school?
As researchers studying the economics of education, we conducted a study on the effect of extreme violence in high schools in the United States. Our paper, now forthcoming at the academic journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, studies the consequences of both homicidal and suicidal shootings at schools.
Effect of high school shootings
We found that homicidal school shootings led to lower test scores in math and English tests. Standardized test scores in math and English went down by 4.9% and 2.9%, respectively, in affected schools.
We also found that enrollment in grade 9 (the high school entrance grade) decreased by nearly 6% following a deadly homicidal shooting.
We did not observe changes in enrollment for upper grades (grades 10, 11 and 12) the year after the shooting. This could be because students had formed their networks and connections by then. And the cost of transferring to another school was high in many ways.
Our estimates indicate that schools, on average, are highly affected when there is a homicidal shooting. The impact was more important in schools that were less affluent.
We found that the decreases in enrollment in grade 9 and in standardized test scores in math and English lasted up to three years after a deadly shooting.
However, we did not find any impact on behavioral outcomes: graduation, attendance or suspension rates.
We also found that suicidal shootings do not have significant impact on test results and enrollment, suggesting that murder at school leads to greater trauma.
Here is how we collected our data:
Our data are taken from several sources. We collected data on shooting incidents from the 2010 School Associated Violent Deaths report from the National School Safety Center, a nonprofit that assists with safe schooling practices. The violent deaths report uses newspaper articles to track shootings at schools nationwide. The report covers shootings at schools between 1994 and 2009.
We matched this to the data on student enrollment per grade (grades 9 to 12) in the US from the Common Core of Data (CCD). As a program of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the CCD collects all data on public schools, public school districts and state education agencies in the US.
In addition, we took information about students’ math and English abilities from each school’s report card and from data posted by each state’s Department of Education. A student’s ability in math and English is tested during high school using a standardized test.
Even then, one question that remained was whether students were really affected by shootings or whether our results showing a drop in test scores reflected the fact that good students do not enlist in the school after a shooting, a fact that decreases school test scores.
To answer this question, we got access to restricted student-level data from California and researched shooting incidents in Californian schools. We found that shootings have a negative effect on the math and English test scores of students who decide to stay in the same school.
We found that in California, the likelihood of students getting a satisfactory result in math and English dropped by 4.2% and 10.2%, respectively.
Future impact on kids
While we have looked only at the short-term consequences of school shootings, it is likely that these events have long-term consequences as well.
Several studies have shown how exposure to violent crimes could lead to depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Studies have found linkages between a fatal sniper attack on a school playground and development of PTSD symptoms in kids. More recent studies have identified the negative effects of violent crime exposure on the cognitive performance of children.
Studies have also found that adolescent kids who had witnessed violence were also more likely to experience depression as adults.
Lower scores on math and English standardized tests could also have future consequences. These students might get accepted only into less selective colleges. And this might have a bearing on their future earnings.
Schools need to respond quickly and adequately in the event of a violent crime. They need to have crisis response plans in place. An adequate crisis response is likely one of the reasons that affluent schools do not see the same decrease in math and English test scores following a school shooting.
But more than that, school shootings should not happen at all. For this, it is important that our policymakers consider preventive measures such as gun control.